Opera in Conversation: 'Madama Butterfly and the Politics of Exoticism' Takeaways

Oct 24, 2019

Jun Kaneko’s renowned production of Madama Butterfly returns to the Orpheum Theater for two performances only, November 1 and 3! Tickets start at $19: operaomaha.org/butterfly

Thank you to everyone who attended our second Opera in Conversation for Madama Butterfly on October 22. Thank you also to Ikuho Amano Ph.D., Associate Professor of Japanese and Japanese Program Coordinator at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln, who led our conversation. In case you were not able to attend, here are some important takeaways from the conversation:

Professor Amano began the conversation by laying out three frames through which one can seek to understand the cultural landscape in which Madama Butterfly was created. The first is orientalism. Orientalism was immensely popular in Western academic and artistic spheres in the 19th and early 20th centuries and was an attitude that viewed the Orient, or East, as culturally inferior to the Occident, or West. Specifically, the Orient, which initially referred to the Arabic countries and northern Africa but later expanded to encompass the entire Asian continent, was seen as backward, superstitious, and uncivilized compared to Europe and North America. The Orient was culturally stagnant compared to the rational, modern, and developing Occident. This perceived superiority in turn brought about a very real power hierarchy between the two which manifested itself in numerous ways, from cultural misrepresentation to colonialism.

The second frame is japonisme, which was a trend in Western art in the late nineteenth century of incorporating Japanese influences, particularly by impressionist artists. Works exemplifying the style often mimicked Japanese techniques such as woodblock printing, or involved Japanese settings such as Claude Monet’s paintings of the Japanese-inspired footbridge in his Giverny garden. They could also involve explicitly Japanese subjects, such the portraits of women dressed in Japanese clothing that were painted by prominent artists during this time. Important to note is the portrayal of Japanese subjects as simultaneously both sexual and innocent. The women are at once sexualized, sometimes dressed in just a kimono, but are also shown as dainty and naïve. This is a direct influence of orientalism, in which the Eastern woman was seen as more exotic than yet also culturally inferior to the Western woman.

The third and final frame is the state of US-Japan relations during the latter half of the nineteenth century. Until the 1850’s Japan had been almost entirely isolated from the rest of the world since the ruling Tokugawa shogunate had enacted sakoku or ‘closed borders’ in the 1630’s. The policy formally ended in 1853 when Commodore Matthew Perry of the U.S. Navy made port in Edo Bay. This landing brought about the signing of the Treaty of Peace and Amity, a set of diplomatic and trade agreements that started the formal relationship between the United States and Japan.

However, this treaty and others like it were far from equal. Signed by the Tokugawa shogunate under threat of force, the treaty set up a number of legal protections to Americans in Japan, opened a U.S. Consulate in the country, and set very low tariffs on Americans goods entering Japan. The same benefits were not offered to Japan, and the treaty greatly weakened the Tokugawa shogunate. It is in this climate of unequal relations between the two countries that Madama Butterfly takes place.

With this groundwork in place, Professor Amano then posed a trio of questions about the American characters for attendees to ponder. Firstly, is Lieutenant B. F. Pinkerton ultimately a bad person? Secondly, is Kate Pinkerton a bad person? Thirdly, is Sharpless a bad person?

Puccini, Illica and Giacosa wrote Madama Butterfly through the exotifying, orientalist lens that was commonplace at the time. The broad strokes of the portrayal of Japan were generally based on fact, but the minutia were often drawn from fanciful misconceptions and mischaracterizations.

Pinkerton personifies the unequal power relationship between the U.S. and Japan, as he seeks to ‘pin down’ Butterfly and exercise control over her. The femininity of Cio-Cio-San is also informed by Western misunderstanding. Operagoers learn she became a geisha due to financial misfortune in her family. She is therefore sexualized for Western audiences by her being a geisha, yet also inferior and reliant on Pinkerton due to her financial situation. In actuality, geishas were highly trained and respected entertainers, not destitute women unable to find other work.

Returning to our three questions from above, while the American characters are certainly problematic as vehicles for espousing orientalist attitudes, they are not irredeemable argues Professor Amano. While Pinkerton demonstrates a disregard for Japanese customs in Act I, such as his exclamation that although his marriage contract with Butterfly is to last 999 years, he may cancel it whenever he wishes, he does show remorse and apprehension for his role in the downward spiral of Butterfly’s life when he returns in the third act. Kate Pinkerton, meanwhile, is not herself malicious towards Butterfly in her marrying of the Lieutenant. Like Butterfly, she is instead a victim of the disregard for the cultural differences between Japan and the United States. Sharpless, being an American diplomat in Japan, is perhaps most aware of the harm that it would cause Butterfly by Pinkerton cancelling their marriage. Indeed, his advice to that effect falls on deaf ears.

The final topic of conversation was the brief overview of historical casting of Cio-Cio-San. One of the first women to become known for the role was American soprano Geraldine Farrar. She played the role from its debut at The Metropolitan Opera in 1907 until 1922, and gave almost 700 performances at The Met in 29 different roles. Her adoring female fans became known as ‘Gerry-flappers’. Farrar also performed debuted other roles at other opera companies around the world and had a successful silent film career in Hollywood.

Another singer famed for the role of Cio-Cio-San was Japanese soprano Tamaki Miura. Miura made her debut in the role in 1915 at the London Opera House. She then toured the United States, Europe and South America as Butterfly, as well as debuting a number of other Japanese roles in contemporary operas around the world. Importantly however, she never had the opportunity to play non-Japanese characters. As Professor Amano noted, Muira instead became a default for other Western perceptions of Japan, including Japanese womanhood, and national identity and pride. With her public image so tied to her being Japanese and seemingly exotic, Muira was prevented from ever playing any role that didn’t fit her own Japanese identity. The same cannot be said for Farrah, who was given license to play identities other than her own, such as Cio-Cio-San.

Issues surrounding casting in Madama Butterfly were discussed extensively at Midday Music on October 25 and at our final Opera in Conversation for this production on October 29, which explored the role artists and creatives play in addressing the problematic elements of many of our favorite operas.

Jack Hardwick
Opera Omaha Weitz Fellow

Takeaways from October 15 Opera in Conversation: operaomaha.org/blog/opera-in-conversation-kaneko-set-design-takeaways
Takeaways from October 29 Opera in Conversation: operaomaha.org/blog/oic-artistic-choices-obligations-takeaways

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